SEMA News—July 2012

By Mike Imlay

The 2012 SEMA Market Segmentation Report

A Fresh New Look at Automotive Specialty-Equipment Consumers

The 2012 SEMA Market Segmentation Report is an in-depth summary of a recent, comprehensive look into the definition of a “typical” automotive specialty-equipment consumer and their purchasing habits. (Photo Courtesy of Truckers Toy Store in Morehead City, North Carolina. See p. 20 for details about this SEMA member business.)
Who are “typical” automotive specialty-equipment consumers? What is their relationship with their vehicles? How does that relationship influence their purchasing habits? And how can automotive specialty-equipment businesses reach them with their marketing? These are some of the perennial questions that drive the industry. SEMA is now offering the 2012 SEMA Market Segmentation Report, an in-depth summary of a recent, comprehensive look into these and other questions affecting every company in the specialty-equipment marketplace.

Commissioned by SEMA and performed by The Modellers research group, the consumer segmentation project had two main objectives: First, it sought to develop a “segmentation strategy” to help SEMA members more effectively identify, attract and retain consumers through improved products and marketing communications; second, it focused on profiling consumer segments to create a common framework for the industry to describe—and sell to—specialty-equipment buyers. According to Gavin Knapp, SEMA’s senior marketing research manager, the finished report represents a fresh approach to SEMA’s market research.

“A lot of what our department has done—especially in the past—has been more what you’d consider industry research,” he said. “This study is different in a couple of ways, one being that we’ve usually focused on what we sometimes term ‘enthusiasts’—our core or hardcore customer. In this case, we decided to go out and get a broader view of our consumer base.

“We still have the enthusiasts and hardcore guys in there, but we have other guys who are maybe getting accessories here and there and not necessarily replacing, say, camshafts and such. We asked them questions not just about what parts they buy, but also how they really think and feel about the industry, their autos and accessorization.”

As part of this effort, SEMA and The Modellers launched a qualitative research project featuring a series of interviews with SEMA-member companies and a series of focus group sessions with specialty-equipment parts consumers. Also included was a quantitative online survey, conducted February 24 through March 12, 2012, encompassing a total of 3,000 interviews.

Respondents were U.S. residents, age 18 and older, who spend more than $100 per year on automotive accessories or modifications apart from routine maintenance. The sample included a wide spectrum of vehicle owners representing every conceivable consumer category, from compact cars to pickups, SUVs, CUVs and even hybrid/electric models. In fact, in another departure from previous market studies, the 2012 SEMA Market Segmentation Report focused less on what vehicle a given demographic owned and more on shared interests, purchasing habits and lifestyle cues within each grouping.

“In this case, it’s really about the motivations that drive consumers,” said Knapp. “Typically, we might think in terms of a guy owning a Tacoma, a guy owning a Civic and a guy owning a Mustang. We might think of them as three very different consumers. But if they all go out and buy wheels, tires, exhausts and suspension accessories, their motivations for those things may be very similar.”

Consumer Segments

Ultimately, the study was able to identify three market segments representing “traditional” specialty-equipment enthusiast or performance customers. The report dubs them Builders, Drivers and the In-Crowd. In addition, the project identified three “new” segments, dubbed the Handyman, the Commuter and the Do-It-For-Me (DIFM) group.

Unlike traditional enthusiasts, the latter three segments are not highly motivated by performance gains. And while those in the Handyman group will spend time working on their vehicles themselves, Commuters and DIFMs typically turn to others to do the work.

“Identifying these six groups allows SEMA members and others who read the report to better focus their own marketing—even product development—based on who they think their target consumer is,” Knapp said.

The segments are as follows:


Those in the Builders group are all about the enjoyment and satisfaction they gain from working on their vehicles.

“They enjoy the creative stimulation that comes from spending hours on a project,” the report said. “Builders also spend their spare time reading up on new ways to modify their vehicles.”

One of three traditional performance enthusiast groups (alongside Drivers and the In-Crowd), Builders represent 24% of those sampled for the project. They are a highly engaged demographic and spend a lot of their time on auto-related activities. For example, 62% of Builders indicated that they have installed parts and accessories on their vehicles themselves. Only 13% said that they had others install parts or accessories for them.

When it comes to magazines, TV shows, movies or the Internet, media interests of Builders regularly revolve around topics such as classic cars, auto repair and accessories, sports cars, sports and news.


The respondents in the Drivers category are motivated by the enjoyment they get from using their vehicles in whatever form that takes. Comprising 7% of the project sample and representing the second segment of traditional automotive performance consumers, drivers are all about power and going fast in their cars.

“They like to spend time working on their car so it is fun to drive,” the report said. “They focus a lot of time modifying the engine, chassis and intake system of the car, all with the goal of going faster than everyone else.”

Like Builders, Drivers spend a lot of spare time on automotive-related activities. Their media interests are also similar and include topics related to auto repair and accessories, classic cars, news, sports and hot rods.

As for installing parts or accessories, their habits also closely mirror Builders: Fully 62% have done the work themselves. In fact, Drivers report working an average of 9.69 hours per week on their cars—more hours per week than any other segment. The Driver segment also contains a large portion of classic-car owners and, therefore, trends toward more used-car purchases: a full 63% report purchasing their vehicles used as opposed to 37% new.

The In-Crowd

Those in the In-Crowd enjoy the recognition they get from having a unique and high-profile vehicle. Representing 13% of the survey’s sample, the In-Crowd focuses mainly on keeping up with appearance trends.

“They want the car to look good but don’t necessarily want to do the work themselves,” said the report. “Modifications are focused around exterior add-ons, lighting and upgrades to the exhaust system.”

Members of this demographic say that they regularly follow sports, news, sports cars, classic cars and entertainment topics in the media. They will work on their own vehicles but are more likely than Builders or Drivers to turn to others to install parts or accessories for them. However, they do report spending an average of 8.14 hours per week working on their vehicles—third only to Drivers and Builders. In addition, 54% of the In-Crowd said that they bought their vehicles new, which is the highest new-vehicle percentage reported in the survey.

The Handyman

This segment comprises 13% of the survey sample. Described by the report as wanting to touch and feel the parts they’re putting on their cars, Handyman respondents need their parts to be safe and reliable, since they are in it for the long haul.

“Their main concern is extending the life of the car, and they are willing to do anything to get a few additional miles out of their car,” the report said.

Members of this segment are more likely to spend their media time pursuing news, cooking and food, sports, history or entertainment topics. Although less automotive-oriented in this regard than other groups, the Handyman (as the term implies) is nevertheless very hands-on when it comes to installing parts and accessories. More than 50% of those surveyed had done installations themselves, as opposed to 24% of this segment who reported having had someone else do the work for them.


Those in this group are mainly concerned with getting and keeping their cars on the road. Encompassing 26% of sample respondents, Commuters are hyper-concerned with price and will shop around to find the best deal. Not surprisingly, this includes a propensity to shop on the Internet.

Media interests for this group include entertainment, news, cooking and food, sports, computers and electronics. Commuters reported a high percentage of used-car ownership (54%). When installing parts and accessories, 43% of this group said that they did so themselves, while 35% said that they had others do it. According to the report, Commuters look for a sense of security and satisfaction from work done on their cars.


This group makes up 18% of the project sampling. According to the report: “This group wants a nice, safe car but doesn’t have the experience or interest in doing the work themselves. Their family needs to be able to count on the vehicle day in and day out for reliability and safety. Even better if the car looks nice too.”

True to their moniker, 57% of DIFM respondents said that they had others install parts and accessories for them. A mere 23% indicated that they had done so themselves.

Similar to Commuters, DIFMs are most likely to be influenced by local installation and maintenance shops. Their media habits center around news, entertainment, cooking and food, sports, travel and vacation topics—the automotive media plays far less of a role in influencing their purchasing decisions. When DIFMs buy automotive products, quality, durability and safety are paramount.

Purchasing Habits

Not surprisingly, the 2012 SEMA Market Segmentation Report finds close correlations between each group’s level of engagement with their vehicles and spending habits. More importantly, it delves into who and what influences them to shop for and ultimately purchase parts. It also tracks the accessories each group is likely to buy as well as each one’s preferred venues for shopping.

“We see that the Internet is becoming big across all of the groups, but the primary place people shop in aggregate is still the chain stores,” Knapp said. “However, we do see shopping across the spectrum and definitely see differences across the segments as to where they shop and where they do their research.”

Builders, Drivers and the In-Crowd share high levels of engagement and spending on their vehicles. Their number-one source of automotive information is magazines. They also frequently get information and project ideas at car shows. The Builders and Drivers surveyed further indicated a strong preference for shopping in chain stores, while the In-Crowd was more likely to first shop Internet or online retailers. Engine, chassis and other performance parts are popular with Builders and Drivers, while exhaust and intake products top the list of accessories popular with the In-Crowd, who also gravitated toward lighting, custom gauges and pedal accessories.

The Handyman and Commuter segments both exhibit medium levels of engagement and spending in modifying their vehicles. When making purchasing decisions, their principle information sources include their own ideas and research, friends, family and the Internet. When doing their shopping, they tend to visit chain stores and discount retailers, although Commuters additionally rely on chain store websites. Examples of products typically purchased by the Handyman include fuel additives, engine cleaners, performance motor oil, GPS systems and pickup truck caps. Commuters said that they were more likely to spend on truck bed covers, stereo head units and backup cameras.

Compared to the other groups, the DIFM segment exhibits relatively low engagement and spending habits. The DIFM tends toward more basic specialty-equipment offerings such as GPS systems, trailer hitches, polishes, waxes and floormats. Like the Handyman and the Commuter, however, the DIFM prefers to shop chain stores and discount retailers but will also shop for specialty-equipment items at car or truck dealerships to a far higher degree than others. Principle information sources are friends, family and the Internet.

Marketing and Messaging

Chief among the 2012 SEMA Market Segmentation project’s objectives was the development of a “robust segmentation scheme” that could help identify good target consumers, determine their unmet needs and ultimately help companies tailor messaging to them. While identifying and describing the distinct mentalities among each demographic group, the report also contains useful suggestions for messaging that’s likely to appeal to them. From Builders to DIFMs, the following are some takeaways:

  • Based on the data, Builders respond to marketing messages that emphasize quality parts that deliver maximum performance for fast and exciting cars. Builders enjoy working on their vehicles and take pride in the finished product.
  • By contrast, messaging that focuses on specialty-equipment items that deliver the most power and best driving experience resonates with Drivers. They want a unique, personal, fun-to-drive vehicle made possible through timesaving, easy-to-install parts.
  • Marketing that targets their desires for quality, fitment, maximum performance and great looks will impress the In-Crowd. They want to be seen, heard and respected as they keep up with the latest trends.
  • Quality parts from a reputable company appeal to the Handyman, while the DIFM is more influenced by
    messages of quality, durability and safety. Marketing in which the thrust is reliability, value pricing and a sense of security and satisfaction is the best way to reach the Commuter.

In-Depth Consumer Profiles

More than previous SEMA marketing research, the 2012 SEMA Market Segmentation Report also delves into the outside interests of each consumer demographic.

“We wanted to get at least some idea of the other activities they are doing, what other media topics interest them,” Knapp explained. “Incorporating those things gives us a deeper understanding of these consumers. In the fall, we’ll follow this up with some deeper dives into each group to really round out their profiles.”

He added that this information may have vast implications for a company’s product development, advertising, sponsorship and cross-promotional endeavors. In fact, much of the report is devoted to in-depth profiles of each group.

The profiles break down each segment’s most popular modifications or parts purchased and explore the features and benefits those consumers expect as a consequence. There is also much attention paid to the emotions that motivate each group when undertaking vehicle projects, installing accessories or otherwise making improvements.

For example, key emotions influencing Builders include satisfaction, confidence and pride. They value modifications that make their vehicles fun to drive, unique and able to push the limits while grabbing attention. Performance power and speed rank at the top of things that matter to them when modifying their vehicles.

“Now that we’ve developed our segments, we feel they are continuous and living,” Knapp said. “This isn’t a one-time report. From now on, every time we go out and do a study or survey, we will be able to further profile and understand these consumer segments.”

Obtaining Your Report

Clearly, the 2012 SEMA Market Segmentation Report offers a wealth of consumer information from an entirely new perspective, and every specialty-equipment business will benefit in some way from its findings. The report is free to SEMA members and is available for a $599 fee to non-members.

For your copy of this groundbreaking report, go to

n From highly engaged Builders to less hands-on DIFMs, the report’s segment profiles explain in depth how much and what type of work each group likes to perform on its vehicles.

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